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Winning Form of 'Function'


LONG BEACH — In 1954, Bay Area artist Peter Voulkos established a revolutionary ceramics program at L.A.'s Otis Art Institute. With his students, he combined the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionist painting with the aesthetic of Japanese raku pottery. Their goal was to move the status of ceramics from that of a lowly craft to a lofty place among the fine arts. It worked so well that its products set the tone for the object-oriented fine art that brought Los Angeles to international attention in the 1960s.

For anyone hip to local history, these facts are as familiar as bedtime stories--and just as potentially soporific. Fortunately the Long Beach Museum of Art adds widening insight as it retells the tale in "Function and Narrative: Fifty Years of Southern California Ceramics."

Thoughtfully selected and handsomely installed by the museum's exhibitions director Martin Betz, the resulting 70-work survey is an important exhibition that deserves a catalog. No catalog. Too bad for posterity and present audience. Viewers must rely on wall labels to glean thematic points both subtle and complex.

I think that Betz's larger message is that the Otis revolution, while crucial, catalyzed trends already active.

Betz rightly places the roots of modern California ceramics in the turn-of-the-century, Japanese-influenced Arts and Crafts movement. The A&C aesthetic implied that any object sensitively designed and carefully executed could be a true work of art--even when mass-produced. By the '20s most A&C commercial ceramic workshops had guttered out. Clay became the purview of individual artists making the sort of one-of-a-kind items collectors tend to value as the real thing.

Examples make the point that this art was already art before the Otis Mafia. A 1944 glazed stoneware teapot by Laura Andreson carries the classic simplicity of Japan. Beatrice Wood's art from the same era has roots in Marcel Duchamp's freewheeling Dada aesthetic. This influence is politely present in her use of representational imagery, which at the time was considered rather naughty in clay art.

Maybe that's why the iconoclastic Otis artists used it as well. In their section '50s-era works by Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price and Henry Takemoto hang side by side. Each bears a picture in some combination of Picasso, Matisse and cave art. This comes as a fairly big surprise in an art that was edited and promoted as staunchly nonfigurative.

At this point most general accounts turn to L.A.'s entry into the larger fine arts arena of sculptural objects. Betz chose to investigate what happened to artists interested in expanding the ceramic tradition from within. Everything they made is recognizable as plate, vase, urn or pot but internal changes are dramatic.

In a section bridging from the 1960s to the '80s, we find an artist like Vincent Suez making a monumental vase whose surface decor updates a classic Bacchanalia into a raunchy romp in a poolroom. Jerry Rothman pushed the envelope by adding funky animation to Baroque curves. His passionate purple "Ritual Vase" is a comic sendup of all things voluptuous.

All the above is a visual banquet that also acts as introduction and prelude to Betz's finale. Five artists representing the postmodern '90s are showcased in the museum's upstairs galleries. Taken together these keepers of ceramic's traditional flame suddenly look remarkably in tune with the zeitgeist. Their work adds up to a recipe for how you make art in a scattered postmodern aesthetic culture. You whip up an eclectic omelet enfolding any or all past styles or forms. Some of this work feels curiously architectural.

Cindy Kolodziejski's pieces resemble Napoleonic neoclassical urns decorated with obsessively realistic outsider-art images that try to parse the vertiginous contradictions presently stalking the planet. One vase shows the skeleton of a two-headed human fetus on one side while the other bears a lovely flower stalk sprouting two blossoms. Why is one repellent and the other poetic?

Ralph Bacerra's set of untitled "Cloud Vessels" are ornate acts of visual prestidigitation that reduce the idea of opulence to a joke. Roseline Delisle's slender, dark, horizontally striped uprights evoke everything from Bauhaus costumes for a production of "Ubu-Roi" to Buck Rogers rocket ships, perfume bottles or minarets.

Something languorous and amused causes Tony Marsh's sparse work to feel sumptuous. "Fertility Vessel" appears as two shallow salad bowls joined into a small canoe. The passengers are a phallic fellow apparently carved by Brancusi from a walrus tusk. The lady in question is a flat circle with a small hole that looks like that gadget doctors used to wear on their foreheads.

Rodney Tsukashima's works are even more magically minimal. Each is a variation of a cone held upright by a doughnut-shaped base joining the elementary to the universal.

* Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd.; through Oct. 19, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (562) 439-2119.

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